Oftel criticises firms for failing to get wired

British business is losing out to the US

Telecoms watchdog Oftel criticised UK businesses for failing to take advantage of the Internet last week, and at the same time got its facts wrong on the cost of DSL.

In a speech at Leeds University, Oftel's director general David Edmonds, claimed that there is now effective competition in the telecoms market and a good range of services for businesses to take advantage of.

Oftel claims the introduction of broadband services via cable and DSL will spur firms online, but the watchdog made an embarrassing goof on the cost of DSL. Oftel claimed BT is to offer business DSL for a wholesale price of £30, which it described as "reasonable". However, BT says the wholesale price will range from £60 to £120.

Alastair Scott, moderator of CUT (Campaign for Unmetered Telecommunications) is amazed the watchdog is out of touch with BT's prices. "They should know something like that, they are part of the whole process," he said.

Bob Jones, chairman of Internet software supplier Equiinet, finds it hard to believe Oftel is criticising businesses. "Oftel set the timetable for this, if they think it is so important for businesses to get online, why has it taken two years to unbundle the loop?" he questioned. He accused the watchdog of expecting more from firms than the telecoms infrastructure can currently offer them. "Oftel are jumping the gun a bit. It is only unbundling of the local loop [where BT opens its exchanges to other operators] that will bring about real competition," he said.

According to Oftel research, only 25 percent of small businesses sell over the Internet while only half use the Internet to buy or order goods. "Small businesses are still missing out on the advantages of the telecommunications revolution," Edmonds said in his speech. He was also scathing of the government's approach to e-business. "The government can't stand up and make a rallying call to industry and then not follow through making sure the infrastructure is in place," he said.

According to Richard Woods, spokesman for business ISP UUNet, there will be a glut of businesses leaping on the Internet bandwagon this year. "We have seen rapid acceleration from the middle of last year, and much more will happen this one," he said. He partly blames BT for keeping smaller firms offline. "Cost has been an important feature. For businesses, free services aren't the solution, and BT has been controlling the price of connection for a long time," he said.

While the lack of competition in the UK telecoms market has been a big factor in keeping it behind the US, Woods believes the history of mail order in the States has made it more predisposed to the Net.

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